He has gone from being a homeless kid who escaped his abusive step dad to now being the only South African to compete against the world’s best skateboarders at the 2019 Vans Park Series (VPS) World Championship in America.
Life has been quite a rocky ride for Salt Rock’s 26-year-old Thalente (pronounced Talent) Biyela. But all that seems to have changed for the young skateboarder who recently caught his ‘big break’ by winning an all-expenses-paid trip to Salt Lake City, U.S. where he will be the only world championship bowl skateboarding qualifier from South Africa.
Thalente managed to secure this sweet deal after winning the recent 2019 Vans Park Series Africa Regional Championship in Cape Town. Born and bred in KZN, Thalente had a tough childhood, growing up with an abusive stepfather and a mother who stayed at home and sold drugs.
“I started running away from home when I was about eight years old. I was expelled from a couple of schools and left for good in Grade six.” He started skateboarding when he was nine years old and says it became his escape from life’s difficulties and his only happy place. “Skating helps me deal with my problems – it’s like I just put all the bad stuff on the board. If I did not have skating in my life, I would go crazy!”
Thalente’s skating progressed and he quickly became a regular at the skate park in Durban. “What I love most about skateboarding is that it is one of the only sports where it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like or what you have – there is no judgment.”
Back home though life was getting worse for Thalente. His mother passed away when he was 12 years old and he decided to leave for good and live on the street. “It was a tough time, but it made me the person I am today. I am grateful for it, because it gave me an appreciation for life. We all have our struggles in life, just different forms of them.”
Luckily, he met Ballito surfer Tammy Lee Smith who took him in and helped him turn his life around. “Tammy helped me stand on my own two feet. She is probably the biggest reason why I am the human being I am today and why I am alive.”
It was also through Tammy that he met Natalie John, a film-maker who lives in America and who spent four years making an award-winning documentary about him called I Am Thalente. “Natalie is such an amazing lady! She heard about my life and took an interest in me, which sparked the idea of this film. She helped me to go to America on a pro-visa and I spent the best five years of my life there. I hope to go back one day,” says Biyela, who rides for Element Skateboards SA and is sponsored by New Balance SA.
While in America, Thalente befriended one of his role models – global skateboarding legend Tony Hawk – who motivated him to keep pushing and to stay focused. Now he says he hopes to be a role model for children who come from similar backgrounds and to be an inspiration in helping them realise that there is a way out and a better life out there. “I would love to go to schools and speak to children about my life and hopefully help make a difference in theirs.”
As far as his personal goals are concerned, the humble skateboarder says he just wants to stay on his path.
I would love to establish and make a life for myself and be the best person I can be. It is my dream to become a professional skateboarder, make it to the 2020 Olympics, earn a little money and pay it forward.”
Text: Elana Wagner